Ever since Warner Bros. and Disney teamed up to create the popular "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in 1988, the folks at WB have tried to duplicate the feat of combining cartoon characters with live actors. But so far their several attempts have been lukewarm at best.
The 2003 cartoon/live-action effort "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" stars the animated Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and the very live Brendan Fraser, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" succeeded because it contained virtually every well-known cartoon character in Hollywood; because it was set in a late 1940s, noir world where anything was still possible; because it starred a serious actor like Bob Hoskins, who made a perfect foil for the fantasy antics of the WB and Disney critters who surrounded him; and because it was very funny. "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" involves only the Warner Bros. cartoon characters; it's set in the mundane present; it stars Mr. Fraser, who is himself almost a cartoon character, having been in such things as "The Mummy Returns," "Monkeybone," "Dudley Do-Right," and "George of the Jungle"; and it's not very funny.
This is not to say the film doesn't have its moments, and, in fact, the animation alone may be worth the price of admission. The WB graphic and computer artists worked overtime to ensure that every animated character looks exceptionally good. Shading and texture render these creations almost three-dimensional. Yet the film itself, directed by Joe Dante ("Gremlins," "Innerspace," "The Howling") lacks the pacing and punch of Warner Brothers' best cartoons, and in terms of pure comedy, the movie lacks requisite zip in the humor department. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, a host of cameos, and all the WB gang of animated characters, the gags fall mostly flat or don't fall at all.
The plot, which has the appearance of being made up as it goes along, is, nevertheless, appropriate to a cartoon feature, meaning it makes no sense at all and isn't supposed to. It's just a series of goofy situations that allow the live actors and animated characters to intermingle, chase one another around, and generally behave silly. This I wouldn't have minded, if only there had been more laughs along the way.
Anyhow, the story involves a security guard at the Warner Bros. lot, DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser), getting fired by the studio's Vice President of Comedy, Kate (Jenna Elfman), a woman who simultaneously fires one of the studio's top stars, Daffy Duck, after Daffy throws a tantrum because he feels underappreciated. Daffy is frustrated, you see, playing second banana to Bugs. At the same time that both DJ and Daffy lose their jobs, DJ's father, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), the studio's top superspy star and real-life secret super spy, gets into a scrape with international baddies and calls on his son for help. The baddies are the Acme Corporation and its Chairman (Steve Martin), who are after a supernatural diamond that turns people into monkeys; they want to turn everyone into simians and rule the world. So, somehow, DJ and Daffy and Kate (who by this time has been chastised by the two Warner brothers for firing so important a personage as Daffy and ordered to bring him back into the fold) go off on an espionage adventure to find DJ's dad.
Along the route of this convoluted adventure, we find a whole series of parodies that will appeal to adults, although they will go right over the heads of children. Peter Graves, for instance, parodies his old role in "Mission Impossible"; Kevin McCarthy parodies his old role in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; Joan Cusack, playing a character called "Mother," parodies the oddball scientist in "ID4"; Bugs parodies the shower scene in "Psycho," complete with black-and-white footage and a can of Hershey's chocolate syrup poured down the drain; plus there are spoofs of "Men in Black," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "Star Wars," with cameos by Jeff Gordon, Matthew Lillard, legendary producer-director Roger Corman, and director Dante's favorite character actor, Dick Miller. I enjoyed these bits and wished there were more of them, but, as I say, I'm not sure anyone but movie buffs would get many of the inside jokes.
I should mention, too, that most of WB's troop of animated characters make at least token appearances, including Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Granny and Tweety, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, the Tasmanian Devil, Marvin the Martian, and Heather Locklear. Well, OK, Ms. Locklear is not part of WB's usual troop, but I can assure you she's quite bouncy and animated.
Fraser is his usual wide-eyed, innocent self in these affairs, his face generally vacant and his reactions barely noticeable. He seems most of the time in this movie a good-looking but airheaded hunk, which, I suppose, is all he's called upon to do in an essentially cartoon role. Still, he's not particularly funny in the way an old pro like Bob Hoskins was funny in "Roger Rabbit." Maybe it's because, as I suggested at the beginning, Hoskins plays it straighter and more energetically and, therefore, gets more laughs. I don't know. The only truly zany live-action character in the film is Steve Martin, who is almost unrecognizable in wig and glasses and plays his Chairman's part with such abandon he could just as well be a CGI creation.
As in other movies that have combined live-action and animation, there is also the problem of the live actors often looking off into empty space rather than directly at the animated characters near them. The issue is with their eyes, and it's hardly their fault, even with stand-ins used during filming.
A final word about the special effects. They're sometimes just as stunning as the animation, so the picture is at least fun to look at, if not to get very involved with. In all, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" is a decent attempt to recapture some of Warner Brothers' vintage cartoon mayhem in a modern animated/live-action format, and it might attract a few adults along with children. Now, if it had only been as funny as it is glitzy....
Colors in this wide, 2.13:1 ratio anamorphic transfer are bright and beautiful, if sometimes a little veiled. With a decently low compression rate, hues are deep and suitably gaudy for this kind of film. There is a small degree of softness to the image, to be sure, but it is not at all distracting. More important, there are no moiré effects to any extent and no grain; but some minor haloes are noticeable. The purely animated portions of the film come off best, but I doubt that anyone is going to complain about the rest of it, either.
Even better than the picture quality is the excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. With strong dynamics, a deep bass, and precise directionality in the surround speakers, the audio reproduction is half the fun of the picture. Voices, crickets, explosions, planes, trains, and automobiles are rendered with equal assurance and guarantee a delightful aural experience all the way around.
The bonus materials are appropriate to the feature film, mostly silly but fun. Things start off with an eight-minute "Behind-the-Tunes" featurette in which Daffy takes us through some of the filmmaking process. Then there's a seven-minute "Bang, Crash, Boom" featurette in which Daffy and Bugs show us how some of the movie's stunts were made. Next are about ten minutes of deleted scenes, followed by the best thing of all, a newly made Road Runner cartoon called "Whizzard of Ow." Frankly, it's funnier than the main feature. Finally, there are some DVD-ROM materials, twenty-four scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Spoken languages and subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish.
My colleague at DVD Town, Tim Raynor, remarked that he thought "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" was no better and no worse than WB's "Space Jam" (1996), which I didn't think was saying a lot. Actually, I liked "Back in Action" quite a bit better than "Space Jam," but that still isn't saying a lot. The new "Looney Tunes" movie is neither offensive nor inspiring; it's just sort of...there. It's undoubtedly fun for kids, but except for its pleasing graphics and occasional in-jokes, there isn't all that much to excite the funny bone of an adult.
Besides, as Tim further observed, if you like the old Warner Bros. cartoons, the package to get is the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" on DVD. I mean, if you're going to spend your time and money, go with the originals. Of course, it goes without saying that if you don't already own and cherish "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," that's another DVD set to buy.
In the meantime, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" is harmless fluff that can hold one's attention temporarily but might not bear up well to repeat viewing.